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The NBA has proved to be an assembly line of stars.
It couldn’t survive as a star-driven league otherwise.
As much as we enjoy marveling at current elites or arguing about past ones, we really like predicting who the next ones will be. Especially at this time of year, when we’ve spent the past two months overindulging in optimism.
We’ll keep those positive vibes going here and identify five players with massive breakout potential for the 2018-19 season. They all fit the traditional mold of an NBA youngster who is coming into his own, but each has unique reasons—such as offseason changes or positive statistical trends—for making the cut.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
John Collins wasn’t a lottery pick last summer, but by the time the 2017-18 campaign closed, he’d dunked his way on to the All-Rookie second team.
His sophomore leap should be even more dramatic.
The Atlanta Hawks’ offense is in flux. Gone is Dennis Schroder, last season’s top scorer and distributor. In his place is…to be determined. Newcomers Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Vince Carter and Omari Spellman should all factor into the equation, and incumbents Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon should again fill prominent roles.
But Collins might be the most exciting name in the mix—at least until (if?) Young learns to navigate through NBA defenses. Among last season’s rookies, he was second in rebounds, field-goal shooting and player efficiency rating, and he tallied the fifth-most double-doubles. He then emptied his bag of tricks at NBA Summer League, averaging 19.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per outing.
He’s planning to dig even deeper into his toolbox once the real season starts.
“Shooting the three. Maybe drive and kick. Drive and get to the cup. Just being versatile,” Collins said, per Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “… Basically, be a mismatch problem and have Coach give the confidence and say, ‘Yo, whatever the lineup is, whatever the game plan is, we keep John in and involved in the game.'”
Collins’ pogo-stick springs and relentless style will always make him an asset as a screener (63rd percentile last season), but an emphasis on shooting could make his stature skyrocket. He looked comfortable and capable from distance at summer league (37.5 percent), which gives him an added dimension on offense. More importantly, Atlanta’s perimeter focus this summer will widen the runway for Collins to take flight.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
If you want to argue that Lauri Markkanen has already broken out, that’s fine. He was basically the same player for the Chicago Bulls (15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds) that he was for the Arizona Wildcats the prior year (15.6 and 7.2) despite a small dip in playing time and that whole thing about facing NBA defenses.
Still, we think that was only the appetizer.
He’s 21. He’s a skilled scorer inside, outside and on the move. He should be Chicago’s first option, but he won’t be the only item on opponents’ defensive game plans. Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker have each averaged 18-plus points before; they’ll rarely be left alone. Plus, there are other ways to suck in defenders (Kris Dunn’s drives, Robin Lopez’s rolls) or spread them out (Bobby Portis or Wendell Carter Jr. popping out).
Life should be easier on Markkanen, a scary thought after he earned a first-team spot on what might be an all-time All-Rookie collection.
“As the centerpiece of the Bulls rebuild, Markkanen should have Chicago’s offense tailored around him, and a player who already has the making of a 20-plus point-per-game scorer could be reaching that total as soon as next season,” Sportsnet’s Dave Zarum wrote.
Markkanen ended 2017-18 on a tear. He reached 20 points in four of his final outings, averaging 19.4 on 50.8/58.1/71.4 shooting over that stretch. He has the skills and should have the opportunity to approach numbers like that on a nightly basis.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
Jamal Murray enjoyed a historic season as a sophomore. His numbers might not have jumped off the page—16.7 points, 3.4 assists, 2.0 threes, 57.6 true shooting percentage—but they should have. Stephen Curry was the only player to have produced them within his first two NBA seasons.
That’s not to say Murray is on the verge of becoming Curry 2.0. Murray is, however, another wrecking ball with ignitable scoring and eye-popping efficiency.
He engineered seven 30-point outbursts last season, a year in which he wasn’t even averaging 30 minutes until December. That was just as many as CJ McCollum and Donovan Mitchell tallied. Murray also compiled a 45.1/37.8/90.5 slash to go along with his 16.7 points per contest. Only Curry, Chris Paul and JJ Redick could match those marks.
And remember, Murray entered that campaign fighting Emmanuel Mudiay for the Denver Nuggets’ starting point guard gig. That obstacle is gone now, and as head coach Michael Malone made clear, Isaiah Thomas’ arrival won’t create a new one.
“I want you to know that Jamal Murray is our starting point guard now, and in the future,” Malone recalled telling Thomas, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “and if you’re looking to go somewhere to fight for starting minutes, that’s not going to happen here.”
If Murray loses anything next season, it’ll be playmaking responsibilities that shift to Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap. That’s just as well since Murray is both a scorer at heart and a lethal spot-up shooter (89th percentile). The more he can focus on finding his shots, the greater odds he’ll have of breaking out.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
Of the 23 players to average 15 points and five assists last season, just two were freshmen: Ben Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr. The pair joined Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Michael Carter-Williams as the only rookies to clear those marks during the 2010s.
The start of Smith’s breakout potential, then, is the likelihood he started out stronger than you realized. There’s only so much spotlight time for 39 percent shooters on 58-loss squads, after all.
But he made 69 starts, averaged 29.7 minutes and rarely—if ever—looked out of place. He opened the campaign as a teenager and closed it with more points per game (15.2) than Jeff Teague and more assists per turnover (1.86) than Eric Bledsoe and D’Angelo Russell. Smith averaged 10.7 potential assists, or more than Irving, Stephen Curry and Kemba Walker.
Smith looks like he might be a jump shot shy of scary. He may be closer to realizing that potential than his year-end 39.5/31.3/69.4 slash suggests. If he matches his March output (18.0 points on 42.6/37.3/71.9), he’ll be a problem.
“He has a tight handle, he can pass and he has a jump shot, so he’s real tough to guard,” Nuggets swingman Will Barton said, per Slam‘s Max Resetar. “He’s gonna be real special in the NBA.”
Smith should benefit as much as anyone from Dallas’ productive offseason. He not only gets an elite pick-and-roll partner in DeAndre Jordan, but he’s also joined by an extra playmaker and transition attacker in Luka Doncic. The Mavs are set up to play faster and cleaner on offense, meaning Smith might be looking at bumps in volume and efficiency.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
If this feels a tad familiar, it should. We were among the many to anticipate a breakout effort from Myles Turner at this time last year.
Instead, his first season with the post-Paul George Indiana Pacers mostly played out like his first two go-rounds in the Circle City. He lost a bit of volume and a few field-goal percentage points, but his per-36-minute production was almost identical.
Why would the upcoming campaign be any different? For starters, he’s reshaped his body, which should increase his mobility and fluidity inside the lines. He should also be incentivized both by the pressure of a hard-charging Domantas Sabonis and a likely venture into 2019 restricted free agency (assuming no extension agreement is reached).
Turner turned heads at the recent informal minicamp put together by Victor Oladipo.
“Myles Turner was exceptional,” trainer Micah Lancaster said, per The Athletic’s Scott Agness. “… I’m personally pretty excited about him. I think he hasn’t even scratched the surface, and he showed it in workouts.”
If the Pacers have hopes of contending, they need a legitimate leap from Turner. They could increase the odds that it happens by upping his usage (20.0 percent last season, fourth in the rotation). He can create for himself (73rd percentile on post-ups, 81st on isolations), but his perimeter touch (career highs in makes and percentage last season) makes him a threat at all times.
He has unicorn potential. He’s already both a shooter and shot-blocker, and if given the chance, he might prove potent enough as a scorer to lock down an All-Star roster spot for years to come.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.